At my cousin’s wedding, one year after I had left home and Judaism, my relatives noticed my dyed hair. I was dressed perfectly tzniusdig, with black opaque tights and all. My wrist tattoo was covered by a long-sleeved black shell and two elastic bracelets holding the sleeve down. But I had dyed my hair a barely-noticeable red, and that couldn’t be hidden.
A few cousins commented on it. Dyed hair is almost unheard of in the chareidi world. They weren’t quite sure how to deal with it. Some tried to ignore it. One cousin memorably slid away (with her sociable smile sliding off her face) as soon as another cousin said “Oh, Esther Shaindel, your hair is so pretty! Love the color!”
But other cousins joined in on that conversation, and soon my sweet, darling great-aunt was telling us how her hair used to be exactly that color. Her wig now is a sedate dark brown bob. Her daughter, let’s call her Chava Hindl, nodded. “Yes! It’s true, her hair was exactly that color! She was a fiery red-head.”
The focus on my hair was over fairly quickly, but since I was the focus of attention, I was asked what I’m doing these days.
Most of my cousins were unaware that I had moved out my parents’ home a year ago. When one cousin asked if I still live in the city, and I said yes, a few other cousins moved out of the circle of conversation and began whispering.
I ignored them, and continued answering my cousins’ questions about my job. I had just finished teaching my first semester of college, and was excited about starting my second semester in a few weeks.
“Oh, you used to teach in Bais Yaakov, right?” Chava Hindl, the principal of a Queens girls’ school, asked.
Yes. I had taught eighth grade English for two years in Bais Yaakov of Boro Park right after I graduated from seminary.
“Come teach for me!” Chava Hindl said. “Your mother says you’re amazing, and I bet you’re a great teacher, you sound amazing, and I need an eighth grade teacher for next year. You’d be perfect! Come teach for me!”
I laughed and pointed to my hair. “With this?”
“Come on,” she said. “You won’t shock. It’s Queens. You know how many girls have dyed hair in Queens?”
Now I was wondering what she was thinking of me. This dyed hair was out of sync with what she had known about me growing up. I was used to being treated as different for so long already – shadchanim always said I was “out of the box.”
So maybe this was just one more eccentricity to Chava Hindl, and she still related to me as a normal person, and actually wanted me to come teach for her. I was confused. Pleasantly so.
Of course, she didn’t know I wasn’t frum.
I declined her offer to teach again.
“I’m never teaching eighth grade again. There’s a reason I quit. Besides, I teach two college classes each semester, and I have a second part-time job also, in addition to the classes I’m still taking as part of my PhD work. There’s no way that would fit my schedule.”
“Oh, I like her!” Chava Hindl said suddenly to her sister-in-law. “We have to find her a shidduch.”
Because that’s the only logical conclusion.
I stood, smiling stiffly, while they tossed names back and forth to each other – all guys they both knew from the community. Finally one name seemed like an appropriate match, so they turned back to me and started telling me about him.
“He’s a lawyer – or a doctor – I don’t know, but anyway he’s really smart!”
I did what I’ve always done in these situations – smile and nod, and wait for them to convince themselves enough that it’s a good match, at which point they’d go talk to my mother. She’d have to deal with telling them I’m not interested, and I felt bad for her, but at least I wouldn’t have to deal with it!
But I’d forgotten that at 26 years old, I’d reached the status of “older single” and had earned the dubious privilege of being allowed to say “yes” or “no” to shidduch suggestions before my parents were approached.
They kept pressing me for an answer. I kept trying to be non-committal.
They asked if I was “busy” now, i.e. seeing someone, and that’s why I was hedging.
When people called my mother to suggest a shidduch, she would tell them I’m “busy” so that she wouldn’t have to say the real reason I’m not interested is because I’m not religious.
She told me she saw no reason to tell people about this choice I made which was likely to be reversed shortly enough – as in, I’d be religious and back in the game soon enough. Better to tell people I was “busy.”
Finally, I got tired of this back-and-forth.
“Don’t tell my mother I told you this because she wants to keep it a secret,” I said, “but I’m not frum now. I’m not shomer Shabbos, I’m not shomer anything.”
There was a moment of silence, and then “oh! Then I guess… I guess he’s not for you!”
“I still like you, though! I still want you to come teach for me!”
I laughed, declined once more.
Later, during dancing, I noticed Chava Hindl and her sister-in-law putting their heads together and whispering while looking in my direction, as I danced with joy and abandon with my mother and sisters. I ignored them.